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Fiction at Fifty Competition Brings new Canadian content to U of L Stage

Three years in the making, the University of Lethbridge Department of Drama is proud to present the world premiere of When There’s Nothing Left to Burn, the winning play commissioned through the Fiction at Fifty playwright competition.

Inspired by the Vancouver Arts Club Theatre Company’s Silver Commissions Project, alumnus Terry Whitehead (BA '94) suggested a similar idea to uLethbridge as a way to celebrate its 50th Anniversary in 2017, commissioning a new Canadian play to be produced on a university stage. With the support of the Department of Drama, Whitehead generously backed the Fiction at Fifty competition, providing prize money for three finalists and the grand prize winner, Sean Devine.

Actress Zoë Bracken in a scene from When There’s Nothing Left to Burn.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time a Canadian university has ever launched a national competition to commission a new play,” says Whitehead. “I was overwhelmed by the response. It’s an extraordinary testament to the reputation of the University of Lethbridge and speaks well about the health of play writing in Canada.”

Beginning January 2014, the Department of Drama invited commissioning proposals for a new full-length play. By March 2014, Fiction at Fifty attracted more than 75 submissions from across the country, spanning 34 cities in eight provinces. Three finalists were selected in June 2014, each receiving a $2,000 commissioning contract to write a full-length draft play within the next 18 months. By December 2015, the jury had three brand new Canadian plays from which to choose.

“One of the great things about this contest is that the format enabled three plays to get initial funding,” says Whitehead. “It’s very rare that playwrights get a commission to go and write their works.”

In January 2016, Sean Devine was announced as the winner, receiving an additional $2,000 commission to continue the development of his play When There’s Nothing Left to Burn. Almost two years later, the U of L is excited to produce the world premiere, hitting the University Theatre stage Nov. 7-11.

Devine is a playwright and theatre maker, as well as the artistic director of Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre. His first play Re:Union premiered in Vancouver in 2011, was published in 2013, had public readings in NYC, Chicago and Seattle, and was presented by the 2015 Magnetic North Theatre Festival. His second play Except in the Unlikely Event of War premiered in Vancouver in 2013. Devine has been the playwright-in-residence at Pi Theatre (Vancouver) and GCTC (Ottawa). His play Daisy premiered at Seattle's ACT Theatre in 2016, where it received a Gregory Award nomination for Best New Play, and a Broadway World Seattle Critic's Choice Award for Best New Play.

The jury, made up of U of L faculty members along with Rachel Ditor, literary manager of Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver, chose three finalists based on proposals that would appeal to and resonate with audiences in southern Alberta and beyond.

“The Arts Club is thrilled that the Silver Commissions Project was the inspiration behind the University of Lethbridge’s Fiction at Fifty competition,” says Ditor. “It is an important initiative for Canadian audiences, artists, and students. A Canadian university offering professional playwrights the time, money and resources needed to create meaningful new works is rare and a gift to us all.”

The winning play had subject matter, themes and acting opportunities to excite and inspire university students. In addition, it used a large cast, and more importantly, emphasized the ensemble as a whole rather than one or two lead characters, all qualities important for the educational experience of dramatic arts students at the university level.

The Fiction at Fifty competition was structured to incorporate special experiences for students. Throughout the year leading up to the premiere, director and Department of Drama faculty Gail Hanrahan initiated and facilitated the reading and workshopping of When There’s Nothing Left to Burn in her class, New Play Workshop. Devine visited the university twice and joined the cast via Skype.

“I welcome other ideas that are not my own,” says Devine. “The cast takes away a sense of ownership of the script and better chemistry.”

The final production is both a polished premiere and a unique opportunity for students, director and playwright to collaborate from page to stage.

When There’s Nothing Left to Burn stood out to the jury because of its dynamic story, insightful perspective and ambitious scope. The plot reveals citizens going about their day-to-day lives in the midst of a violent political conflict in an unnamed North American city. Inspired by a faraway revolution in Kiev in 2014, Devine explored the idea that a similar crisis could happen in Canada.

“The revolution seemed to be just one more in an unending stream of citizen-led revolutions and uprisings across the globe,” says Devine. “Perhaps I’m a pessimist, but I just can’t see this trend abating anytime soon. I wanted to create something that encapsulated all the divergent voices and faces of a city in the midst of a siege.”

When There’s Nothing Left to Burn will leave audiences considering how their lives would change if a bomb exploded on the bus they were taking to school or work. What if you were not allowed out of your house between sundown and sunrise? What if you were brought in for questioning because you wrote a song, or because you posted about what was happening in your city?

This play pushes boundaries of theatre, from its inception to final production, and the uLethbridge drama department proudly invites all audiences to attend.

Tickets are available at ulethbridge.ca/tickets, and through the Box Office at 403-329-2616.